Musicians: Don’t Concentrate!

I love watching the Olympics. The grace and determination of the athletes inspires my music making. So I was certainly intrigued when several of my friends began posting “Nine Ways for Musicians to Think Like Top Athletes” from The Strad magazine. I agree with most of author Carole Talbot-Honeck’s ideas, especially related to positive thinking and developing a strong sense of self. But I disagree with a couple of things as well.

I most strongly disagree with her fifth point about focus, where she praises the ability to concentrate. Yes, I agree that “multi-tasking is out!” I equate multi-tasking to “scanning” or “sequencing.” This is basically the process of concentrating, but moving quickly from concentrating on one thing, to then concentrating on something else. It’s limiting and mentally exhausting.

However, concentration should not be the goal of musicians either. And many musicians are told from a very young age that if only they would concentrate better, they could perform better. Concentration implies focusing narrowly on just one object (the music) to the exclusion of others (the room you are playing in, the audience, or your own body). It’s performing with blinders on.

This sort of concentration is often reinforced by well-meaning teachers advising students that, in order to overcome anxiety, they should block the audience out, or imagine the judges of a competition with no clothes on (truly frightening!), etc. This imagining splits the mind in two. Part of you is concentrating on the music, but part of you is concentrating on not being fully present to the performance. Your mind should be fully engaged in the act of performance. You want all of yourself available to express your full artistry. When part of your mind is actively engaged in not being fully present, how can you be fully present?

Concentration is NOT the way to bring out your best performance. An inclusive awareness is the key to better practice and performance. Inclusive awareness, also called inclusive attention, or just mindfulness, is the ability to have everything in your awareness, without getting distracted by the need to concentrate on just one thing (the music, shaky hands, the snarky music critic, etc.). “Everything in your awareness” is a gestalt that includes your inner world and the world around you. Your inner world includes your thoughts about the music, its emotions, its structure and style. Your inner consciousness may also include feelings such as pain or hunger, and self-talk related to ego. Your inner thoughts need to also be fully open to your senses—not just the hearing sense, but also your sense of touch, and your sense of movement. You need an awareness of how your whole body supports music making in order to play with freedom, and in order to bring out the full expression of the music. The outer world includes things like the acoustics and temperature of the room, and the audience you are playing for, including snarky colleagues and critics.

More information on how to train music practice and performance with a fully inclusive awareness is found in all the Body Mapping books written for musicians, including my own, “Oboemotions.” For more detailed research about these issues, I recommend Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer’s many books on mindfulness.

Watching the Winter Olympics, I notice how so many of these great athletes are fully present in the moment during their gold medal performances. They are conscious of their own adrenaline rush, of their own bodies in motion, of the temperature, and of their audience, as well as the key elements of their performance. This inspires me to be more fully present in my own practice and performance.